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Foreign Office defends leaving Saudi Arabia off death penalty list

Published 05/01/2016

Iraqi Shiite protesters chant slogans against the Saudi government as they hold posters showing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr (AP)
Iraqi Shiite protesters chant slogans against the Saudi government as they hold posters showing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr (AP)

The Foreign Office defended not including Saudi Arabia, where 47 alleged terrorists were executed at the weekend, on a list of priority countries where it would encourage the abolition of the death penalty.

The document, published in 2011, listed countries including Iran and Belarus, as places where it would "proactively" work towards helping to do away with capital punishment.

Saudi Arabia is not one of the countries or regions identified in the five-year strategy.

The executions on Saturday of dozens of people including prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr prompted an international outcry, and sparked protests in Shia-dominated Iran, where the Saudi embassy was stormed.

David Cameron said the UK condemned the death penalty in all circumstances and had made representations to the Saudi authorities on this occasion.

On a visit to east London on Monday he said: "S pecifically on Saudi Arabia let me be clear - we condemn and do not support the death penalty in any circumstances and that includes Saudi Arabia.

"We always make representations on the death penalty and the Foreign Office ministers made it very clear on this occasion."

The document, for 2010-2015, said countries considered a priority are selected for reasons including where the Government would most like to see change.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said the 2011 document was a "general policy guide" but pointed out that Saudi Arabia is listed as a "country of concern" in a report published last year.

In that document it was noted the number of executions in Saudi Arabia rose in 2014 to 86, up from 78 the previous year.

The Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "This document is a general policy guide from 2011, rather than a case by case list of countries where the death penalty is applied, hence why it also doesn't include North Korea.

"A full list of countries of concerns was published in March 2015 in the Annual Human Rights Report, that includes Saudi Arabia and its use of the death penalty.

"The Government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle and continues to raise concerns with the Saudi authorities at the highest levels."

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the Government should not "accidentally miss" out countries because it is "worrying about diplomatic nicety".

He told the Independent: "Saudi Arabia is a barbaric regime and the UK government must do more to stand up to them."

The Times reported that Mr Cameron had postponed a planned visit to the Saudi capital Riyadh, which the paper said was due to take place in the coming weeks but would now not go ahead until March at the earliest.

The PM's official spokeswoman declined to say whether a trip had been postponed, pointing out that no visit to the country had been announced.

She suggested that Mr Cameron's foreign policy focus and travels would be dominated by Europe over the coming weeks, telling a Westminster media briefing: "He has been clear that he wants to get on with securing the reforms we need to Britain's relationship with the EU. There is a European Council in six weeks' time when the ambition is to secure those reforms, and I would expect him to continue his engagement with European leaders in the run-up to that."

Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood is to make an oral statement about Saudi Arabia to the House of Commons this afternoon.

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